NPR Answers (or Dodges) CAMERA Criticism

National Public Radio has responded in writing to CAMERA’s study of the network’s coverage during the latter six months of 1991 and has even, finally, done an analysis of its own coverage. Individuals who wrote to complain, and NPR affiliate stations nationwide, have received a three-page letter from the network’s managing editor John Dinges. Unfortunately, the letter’s total evasion of CAMERA’s principal criticisms is testimony to NPR’s continuing attempt to stonewall substantive criticism of its coverage of Israel and the Middle East.

The following is a summary of Dinges’ defense of NPR programming and CAMERA’s responses:

NPR Claim: CAMERA’s charges are "unfounded" and "one-sided"; its study was designed to "confirm already strongly held opinions." CAMERA’s delineation of basic concerns of mainstream Israelis, issues primarily related to security, is "a collection of characterizations and positions that [CAMERA] would have liked our reporting to support."

CAMERA: NPR continues to confuse demands for full and balanced coverage of the entire Middle East, with advocacy of what it terms a "position." Surely, for example, security issues, strategic considerations, and the balance of power are major elements to be considered in the quest for peace; why, then, does NPR routinely ignore these issues and distort their significance? CAMERA advocates the free flow of complete information to the American public, not "support" for a position. Most telling is NPR’s inability to refute CAMERA’s damning discovery that in six months of intensive coverage of Israel, for which 278 Middle East stories are indexed in NPR’s own archives, not one addressed the military threat to Israel. Similarly, during that period of intensive discussion regarding the possibility of Israel exchanging "land for peace" not one story was devoted to the strategic significance of the West Bank and only one report discussed the military significance of the Golan Heights. NPR has never denied these gaping omissions in coverage. Instead, following the pattern of entrenched bureaucracies and corporations facing grassroots criticism, the network is trying to sidestep the CAMERA findings and to "shoot the messenger."

NPR Claim: In its coverage of Israel NPR presented a balanced number of Arab and Israeli speakers. NPR’s scrupulous balancing of opinion is demonstrated by the results of an internal study conducted by Managing Editor John Dinges. Spanning the period October 16, 1991, through November 18, 1991, NPR analyzed network coverage in 95 stories related to the Peace Talks or "to some related issue concerning Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel’s Arab neighbors." The conclusions "indicate the care we exercise in our coverage: In the 95 stories about the Peace Talks, we interviewed 31 Israeli officials and experts, 32 Arab ones, and 30 third-party analysts. Among the Israelis heard, half were government officials or others with a clear pro-government perspective. The remainder were clearly within the spectrum of mainstream, centrist opinion in Israel…

CAMERA: CAMERA’s original study was constructed to overlap a study NPR had said it would do of its Middle East coverage during three months of 1991. The network apparently never undertook that analysis. Now that NPR has finally recognized the seriousness of the public outcry about its reporting, it has conducted an analysis of one, selected month of coverage. CAMERA has therefore taken the opportunity to analyze closely the same span of coverage.

This latest CAMERA study included every report on the three major NPR "newsmagazines" that involved stories related to Israel, the Middle East, the Palestinians or the peace talks. (Tangential Middle East reports, such as those about a car bomb in Beirut in which there was no mention of Israel, were not counted.) Every speaker interviewed in the relevant programs between October 16 and November 18 was listed.

CAMERA counted not 93 but 114 speakers in that period, 67 of whom were Arabs and 47 of whom were Israelis. This breakdown is almost identical to the previous CAMERA analysis, which showed an unmistakable skewing in the direction of greater representation of Arab views.

Half (23) of the 47 Israeli speakers were government officials, the same proportion that Dinges found and that CAMERA found in its earlier study of a different sample of programs. The sample also replicates the original CAMERA study in that no representative of the mainstream Labor party is among the nongovernment speakers. Instead, again, the extremes of the political spectrum are heavily represented. For example, there are seven settlers interviewed. Indeed, one of the two longest NPR segments in the study is devoted to an in-depth interview with a settler couple. The other is an interview with Sari Nusseibeh and Mark Heller discussing their advocacy of a Palestinian state. As CAMERA has repeatedly charged, NPR uses the power of its role to effectively shut out the voices of centrist Israelis, those who are neither Biblically-oriented settlers of the right nor left-wing proponents of a Palestinian state.

Consistent with the original CAMERA study there was not a single speaker from Hamas or from any radical PLO group.

NPR Claim: Contrary to CAMERA charges, NPR did air stories about "the militant Islamic organization Hamas. In fact, [NPR] aired four reports during that period."

CAMERA: NPR shamelessly dodges the substance of CAMERA’s criticism on this point. CAMERA’s charge was that NPR omitted stories on the stated aims of Hamas to destroy Israel. And the network did omit such stories. NPR ran five, not four, references to Hamas during the month under review, all but one merely allusions to the group. As CAMERA charged, none described the goals of the organization. Hamas calls for the destruction of Jews, Judaism and Israel and, needless to say, opposes the peace process. A network that devotes such extraordinary air time to reports on the actions and policies of Israel and purports to offer comprehensive coverage of the struggle for peace in the Middle East is professionally obliged to include serious coverage of radical groups such as Hamas.

NPR Claim: The preponderance of stories on Israel in contrast to "non-Israel-related events in Arab countries…reflects our journalistic assessment of the news interest in the region for U.S. listeners, an assessment shared by virtually all major news organizations in the United States."

CAMERA: Among the many startling assertions in John Dinges’ response to CAMERA’s criticism, this one stands out for its admission of NPR’s dereliction of responsibility to listeners. In the first place, not all news organizations purvey the same obsessive and slanted coverage as NPR. Many cover other parts of the Middle East in a way that provides readers, listeners and viewers a more comprehensive perspective on the region.

More importantly, the role of the journalist is to enlighten the public as fully as possible about world affairs, to serve as the "eyes and ears" of the people. Nowhere in the journalistic code of ethics is the reporter enjoined to omit major stories in order to gratify the perceived interest of some segment of the citizenry. The CAMERA study demonstrates how disastrously the skewed preoccupation with Israel has affected NPR coverage. Wh
ole nations, conflicts and calamities go unreported, creating a dangerously misshapen version of Middle East reality.

NPR Claim: "We especially deplore [CAMERA’s] ad hominem attacks on our resident reporter in Israel, Linda Gradstein…We categorically reject your charge that she has in any of her reporting injected a political agenda…. We must conclude that CAMERA’s attacks, particularly in light of the hostility directed against Linda Gradstein, are intended to intimidate her and NPR into skewing our coverage of the Middle East to reflect CAMERA’s agenda. That we will not do."

CAMERA: Nowhere in any of the criticism of NPR’s reporter Linda Gradstein is there an "ad hominem" attack on her. Her reports are quoted verbatim and analyzed, and her publicly-stated political views are shown to permeate her reporting. Dinges seems to think that while journalistic scrutiny of every institution and individual in our society is proper and important, public scrutiny of the performance of a public network’s correspondent is unfair. It might be worth reminding Dinges that the First Amendment was erected to protect the people, not to protect entrenched bureaucracies such as NPR or tendentious reporters such as Linda Gradstein.

By way of praising Gradstein’s abilities Dinges noted her fluency in Hebrew and Arabic. But, as a May 28, 1992, segment illustrates, the reporter’s mistranslation of a common Arabic chant calls into further question her professional integrity. That day NPR aired Gradstein’s highly sympathetic, 80-sentence account of the funeral of a 22- year-old member of the radical PLO group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who had been shot by Israelis. (Days earlier the stabbing murder of Israeli teenager Helena Rapp by a Palestinian had elicited four sentences, three of them critical of Israelis angered by the killing.)

Gradstein translated the Arabic chanting at a memorial gathering for the PFLF member as: "Anton, Anton, you were murdered. We promise to continue your struggle." The actual translation of the cries of the crowd was considerably less benign. "With fire and blood we will liberate Anton," were the words, a variation on the chant familiar to all Israelis, and surely to the Arabic-speaking NPR reporter: "With fire and blood we will liberate Palestine." Gradstein’s mistranslation of the chant to omit overt Arab threats of violence is entirely consistent with the pattern of her reporting.

NPR Claim: "…one member of CAMERA’s board of advisors, the Rev. Robert Drinan, a former member of Congress and outspoken supporter of Israel, resigned from the CAMERA board after learning of the unfounded attacks on NPR."

CAMERA: During the fall of 1991, and before undertaking its study, CAMERA wrote to the Vice President and to the President of NPR repeatedly asking for information and for the opportunity to meet to present concerns about the network’s Middle East coverage. Instead of responding to CAMERA, NPR contacted Rev. Robert Drinan, a nominal member of CAMERA’s advisory board. Apparently wishing to avoid the fray between CAMERA and NPR, Drinan resigned from CAMERA’s board. Unfortunately, NPR’s action resembled that of many large corporations under public fire, choosing the route of intimidation and muscle-flexing, instead of direct response to documented criticism.

On the subject of resignations the network may prefer that the public forget the NPR Board member who resigned in 1990 charging the corporation with unethical journalism. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Richard Salant, a former president of CBS News and Board member of NPR, "was uncomfortable with the fact that nearly one third of NPR’s $14 million news budget comes from some thirty grants awarded by companies and foundations which routinely restrict the use of the money for programming in certain areas. What this means…is that NPR, ever hungry for a buck, would tend to cover the areas supported by grant funds rather than those judged important by purely journalistic standards." Salant charged that, "It’s a bad idea because news judgments should be made autonomously, strictly on the basis of news values, and not on whether you get money to cover some things but not others." When NPR refused to reassess the policy of accepting money with news restrictions attached, Salant resigned.

NPR Claim: "I ask you, again, in the interest of fairness, to print this response in its entirety. But, in the final analysis, we make our case for the quality of our journalism in our daily programs, where we make an extraordinary effort to be fair, balanced and impartial while presenting a wide spectrum of news, opinions and voices on issues of vital interest to our listeners."

CAMERA: As John Dinges knew at the time of writing his rebuttal, CAMERA had already agreed, in a letter faxed to the network on November 3, 1992, to print, as NPR requested, a thousand-word rebuttal in the CAMERA Media Report which is sent to the 20,000 members of the organization. CAMERA asked in return for a similar opportunity to address its concerns to NPR’s constituents, the fourteen and a half million weekly listeners to whom the network’s reporters have regularly broadcast a seriously skewed version of the Middle East. NPR has yet to respond to this proposal. As it has from the outset, the network admits to no flaw whatever in its coverage, is indignant at public criticism, and thinks it is entitled to argue its case to CAMERA members while refusing to grant CAMERA an equal chance to make its case to NPR listeners.

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